New Merton book stirs up controversy

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(RNS) Rarely has a romance seemed so star-crossed. He was 51, she 25. She was a pretty, petite student-nurse; he was stocky and bald, with a roving intellect and a boisterous laugh. He was also the most celebrated Catholic monk in America. Margie Smith had read at least one of the books that made Thomas […]

  • taad

    Merton was not the spiritual guide people believe he was. May he rest in peace. He was living a double life, much like Fr. Marcial was. I would not recommend his books when there is so many other great spiritual masters to pick from who stood the test of time and walked the talk. If you can’t live it yourself, you have no business guiding others. That’s why Fulton Sheen is such a great role model for everyone. He walked the talk in the modern world. Sheen was a prophet for out times.

  • Samwise

    It’s ridiculous to compare Merton with Maciel…Maciel was a pervert. Merton’s relationship with this Nurse has already been documented in “The Seven Stories of Thomas Merton” (I think that’s the title)…no one said he sexually consumated the relationship; what angered me,though, was the fact that he begged for the privilege to live as a hermit and abused that privilege by sneaking out to see this woman and, worse, involved friends to help him in this illicit activity. I think one friend was supposed to have been Joan Baez. Merton, through his writings, drew many to embrace a relationship with the Lord and he himself said early on that he was not a perfect man. His infatuation with the Nurse is one thing; worse, for me, is the fact that he brought others in to help him with his deception. But he is, hopefully, with God now…may He rest in peace.

  • leroy westburgh

    intersting; true or false/ up or down? what song is sung with out some sour notes? or note? my fellow catholic’s that i have been associated with often talked about merton!! and the abbey. what do we really judge! the opera! or the singer’s! what stirs us to listen more closely. and what of the actor’s. and how much does it move us? it seem’s that in today’s world we sit attop another’s miss deed’s and judge with a heavy or light hammer? damming any thing that is what we expected of one indavidual, product etc. i have in truth read one of his book’s and it connected with me pearsonally. and i appreaciated his insight into the common man’s outlook of his own pearsonal relationship with his maker! why! do we throw stone’s. my feeling is that i am not his juge! creator!, etc.
    it is what he wrote, and stirred us to think more deeply as to who the lord is and the meaning of our life toward’s god, and our neighbor! as far as defaming his action’s? i will let the lord be the judge of that? but as far as his words in print. i see no need to stop praying for him or not reading the book’s that he wrote! they to must be like guide post’s toward’s heaven. we are all sinner’s? but look at the good not the negative that a man does.
    god bless leroy westburgh

  • Michael G. Batcho

    Thomas Merton was a monk . . . and a monk is one who “aspires to the angelic life”. the walk any monk walks is one which winds its way through the maze and obstacle course of “this world”, sometimes taking a wrong turn, and correcting it, sometimes falling down, then getting up, sometimes encountering a wall or seeming “dead-end’ and finding one’s way over, under, or around it . . . always with the end goal and intended purpose of the journey in mind.

    a monk believes that his/her walk through this world isn’t purposeless or vapid, but ends, hopefully, in and with God.

    Merton was a monk . . .he thought, meditated and even prayed “on paper” and so we have numerous books and writings and letters of his journey.

    he was no fraud . . . no fake . . . we was what he was: a man seeking and trying to walk with God in his awareness. “this” Merton did . . . and he was faithful to that pilgrimage to the very end of his earthly walk. the afct that one can find “flaws” or failings only make him that much more a “real monk” rather than a hagiographied illusory one. we find human flaws in many saints, probably in all saints aside from Mary the Mother of God. whether Merton was a man who was a saint, or just saintly, or who just sought sanctity and wrote about that, is known for now only to God. yet his walk leaves anyone seeking a spiritual walk much to learn from. and that is what a monk is and does: seeks his own salvation and the salvation of others by their life of prayer.

  • Mary

    I’m perplexed as to why he was allowed to spend so much time studying Zen Buddhism and travelling the world. Does anyone know the purpose of the two activities?

  • Michael G. Batcho

    Mary, Thomas Merton didn’t spend much time “traveling the world” . . .at least not after entering the monastery at Gethsemane KY . . . Merton studied “monasticism” and was searching to find a “common thread” at the core of monasticism that might or might not exist trans-denominational lines and even trans-religion lines. and he did find that in some ways (not all) monanasticism has some common threads. and this is one reason he studied “Zen” and other oriental religions and philosophies (he also studied the “Desert Fathers” of early 6th century Christianity) . . . he looked for what might “unite’ rather than what might “divide” in monasticism and so in the Church at large.

    he was granted premission by the monastery to travel to deliver some of his thoughts at a conference on monasticism in Asia . . . it was while there, and just after delivering his own thoughts that he concluded his talk with,”and i’ll disappear” . . .we retired to his room, took a shower and was accidentally electrocuted by a faulty wire in an electric fan.

    as a monk, Merton waqs not a world travelor . . his books traveled as did his thoughts, but he was grounded at Gethsemane.

  • Cradle Catholic

    He’s 51 and she’s 25? What would he have in common with her? It’s just not wise.

  • Phil

    Merton? No thanks. I’ll stick with spiritual masters like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Fulton Sheen, St. Gemma Galgani, St. Faustina Kowalska…as taad mentioned, those who truly walked the walk. Yes, they all had flaws, but they were faithful to their calling and were faithful to the teachings of the Magisterium. And, as an added bonus, they didn’t dabble in false religions.

  • Michael G. Batcho

    Phil . . the spiritual classic writers you mentioned wrote to that people like Thomas Merton could come to grow within the Church’s moanstics . . .(Merton came to become a monk because he read Saint Therese of Lisieux) . . .also, Merton neven “dabbled in false religions” – he studied them to find what threads they might hold in common in monasticism . . he no more dabbled in false religions than does or did ANY of the Popes.

  • Pastor Jeff Russell

    Thomas Mentor serves as a spiritual mentor in my journey to draw closer to Christ. He had a few belts? Good for him… Jesus prepared the best of wines. He loved? There’s a crime…. He struggled…. so did Christ. So whats the charge? God Bless Merton for allowing us to see his humanity, his frailty and his incredbile spiritual wisdom.

    With our tongues we give praise to God and with the same tongue curse man who is made in God’s image.

    Id rather pray next to a man who recognizes his own struggles and share a bourbon with him than to keep company with those who parade around in a mask of holiness.

  • Mary Louise

    Thank you, Phil. Well said. I concur. Regarding Sam’s above comment: “Merton’s relationship with this Nurse has already been documented in The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton.” If I remember “Seven Storey Mountain” correctly, this particular nurse friendship took place in upstate New York BEFORE Merton was a Trappist Monk in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Can a Merton scholar/authority please verify or correct this fact for me?

    Michael Batcho, regarding Merton’s death: Merton “took a shower, and afterwards accidentally stepped with wet feet on an electric wire from a fan on the floor, and was electrocuted,” according to the New York Times.

  • Michael G. Batcho

    Mary . . .Merton’s relationship (whatever it was, which is undefined as Merton burned many of her letters, so we can never really know), took place in KY while he was in Gethsemane . . it was something he himself struggled over and in the end chose the monastery and his monastic vow and let go of any illusions about the possible “new life choice” . . that much we do know . . .

  • Good comments all around. Thank you. Some have caused me to stop and think a bit more about Merton and his inspiring love story. When you read the book, you will understand better why when he was given the chance to love and be loved, he grabbed it with all of his might. Whether he would have ever left the monastery (he would never have done so without permission, which was denied him), is subject to conjecture, but Merton’s own words that I have quoted verbatim in the book will provide you with why he called the student nurse Margie, “a miracle in my life.” As one Merton scholar wrote me, “Your book is brave, beautifully written, and an honest tribute to Merton.” This was my desire; a quest for the truth. Amen!

  • L. Newington

    This is absolute deceiption. No rhetoric on spirituality judgements
    or anything else. Many Religious Order and Diocesan Priests in Australia (and other nations that have since come to light) have women on the side with the full knowledge of Bishops and relevant Superiors. Catholics know this and instead of putting their hand over their mouth in mock dismay, encourage the “powers” that be to allow them to marry and make honest men of them and true “fathers” to the children they bring into the world if they have any which most of them do.
    Then no one can be deceived.
    God never is,isn’t that wonderful!

  • artist9911

    “My life is meaningful in itself, because it is life.” Merton wrote this truth at the end of the M affair. He realized the illusions surrounding that love were full of “deception, unreality, and unhappiness as if his worth consisted of loving her and being loved by her.” Any of us caught in love’s emotional cyclone can gain great comfort from the truths Merton gained from this “illicit” affair. I found healing in this book. Thanks to whomever published it.

  • Samwise

    L. Newington…if you have statistical proof that most Priests in Australia have women on the side and children….prove it!!! Otherwise don’t spout lies and exaggerations just to prove your point…what is your point by the way? That Priests should be married? So…married men do not stray and betray their vows???? We are all human! We ALL stray from time to time…should marriage be abolished just because spouses are unfaithful??? And I certainly do not believe that your Bishops approve and support this deceitful way of life…but I will check with them to make sure…but, as I said, prove your point with facts…not with emotional blathering!!!!

  • L. Newington

    Samwise, thank you for your comment.
    Let me assure you they do,and we are not refering to married laymen.
    We are refering to priests not all suited to a life of celebacy are decent men and are forced into a life of deception. God would not accept this nor would their mothers.
    There is no graceful exit.
    A merry and wise Christmas.

  • Samwise

    L.Newington…thank you for your response. If you choose marriage, then you are called to honor and keep your marriage vows. You are not forced to be married, it is your choice. However, you cannot have the pleasures of single life if you choose marriage. If one chooses to be a Priest, then one is called to live fully and honorably that vocation. A Priest who cannot honor his priestly commitment, would probably not honor his marriage vows. Priests that openly flaunt their betrayal of their vows cannot be called ‘decent’ men…what if a married man openly flaunted his adulterous affairs with other women? Many were accepted into the Priestly and Religious life who did not have the vocation…however, Priests can be laicized and religious can be relieved of their vows. Life is not easy…it’s not meant to be. Not much is asked of us as Catholics…we aren’t called to bloody martyrdom or lives of stark deprivation as many missionaries in poor countries are…we are called simply to live honorable according to our vocations…I have been called to a life of consecrated virginity lived in the world…it is the most ancient of vocations…it is not easy, but I don’t want what is ‘easy’…we are truly called to follow a crucified Christ…only in this way shall we know the joy and freedom of a resurrected life. But if we do live as we are called to live—despite our many flaws and weaknesses — but as long as we are trying and get up and back in the game each time we fall, then we will know joy and peace…if, however, we choose to stay down where we fall, then we will complain and blame others for our misery. I wish you a very joyful and blessed Christmas…Samwise (a nickname someone gave me after seeing “Lord of the Rings”….)

  • L. Newington

    Sam, you say you have been called to the noble Consecrated Life of Virginity, only you and your confessor know if you have succeeded and worthy of that calling.
    If you have warmed the seat of the Penitential chair? Think about what I have said.
    All the best in your Priestly and Religious life.

  • Pastor Jeff Russell

    Okay.. enough of slamming Merton. Here is the truth.. The church shoves celibacy down the throats of the priesthood. Jesus taught there are only certain men that can enter celibacy…

    1. The Eunuch
    2. The person to whom the gift is given

    The Catholic Church is forcing heresies into th priesthood.

    Paul was clear in Timothy there is an assunmption of marriage.

    The church usurps its biblical authority when forcing celibacy. It is a financial decision couched in spirituality… If a man makes a vow that God say can only be achieved by birth or special grace and man knows this who tries to force the vow.. then it is not the penitents fault.

    Get over your holier than thou atitudes. How dare you hypocrites…
    If you even look at a woman with lust you commit adultery. Remove the plank from your own eyes.

    Its people like you that have a date with destiny you wont like… the measure by which ye judge… ye shall be judged… I hope you have never looked at a woman.. kissed a woman before marriage..touched a woman before marriage…… thought about touching a woman before marriage…

    You make me sick…..

    Why dont you try turning to Scripture for answers instead of your man made tradtions and rules…. thats the problem with you pious Catholics… you dont know diddly about Scrtipture…. when was the last time any of you studied GODS WORD?

  • I am from one of those ‘false religions’ mentioned by one of the commentators above. I am a Hindu and a confirmed one at that, which means that neither my Catholic seminary training in Biblical Studies nor in Formative Spirituality, have been able to convince me to become a Catholic. Such hold Satan has on the wretched of this earth. LOL.

    Before commenting on Merton let me share with you an anecdote:

    Some great scholar, Benedictine I believe at either Oxford or Cambridge, had just finished his magnum opus on his Order’s history. It was a labor of love and he had spent many cold nights writing this. He got a letter from the top man in his Order congratulating him. What a great job he had done. But then one line was added which changed the life of this austere scholar. His chief-Abbot had added: may be you are a fine scholar but it seems all throughout you are inhuman. May be , you lack love…make what of this you will…

    I have been an avid reader of Merton from my boyhood days. He and the Jesuit Antony de Mello ( another dabbler in Zen) drew me to Catholicism.

    I want to ask a few questions to the practicing Catholics here:

    a) Remember a guy called Jesus? He had asked us not to judge others, what business have we to judge Merton?

    b) May be, we squirm at monks having relationships with others simply because we are incapable of breathtaking passions.

    c) Why can a person be not God intoxicated and at the same time open to the stirrings of humanity in the person of one individual?

    d) Have any of you guys ever lived for long stretches alone and without the murmur of any human voice?

    While Fulton Sheen (whom I have read and heard recs of) seems to be holy, Merton more like you and I seem to be accessible and human.

    Lastly, dear Mr. Author, what perverse force goaded you to dig up this part of Merton’s life in the name of scholarship? May be, your sacrifice could have been to let this impulse to dry Merton’s linen in the open pass.

    & it is time for me to shut up. I have no business talking of your holy men to you. Sorry guys.